I’ll make this mercifully brief: “Stuber” is not the second coming of “The Big Sick,” the delightful 2017 comedy-drama that broke Kumail Nanjiani out of the stand-up/character actor pack. “Stuber” is, I guess, mainstream Hollywood’s idea of a reward for a successful indie film that netted its writer-star an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Which is damned depressing.
With a by-the-numbers screenplay by Tripper Clancy and assembly-line direction from Michael Dowse (see his 2013 hockey comedy, “Goon,” instead), “Stuber” is just the umpteenth iteration of the buddy-cop action drama pioneered by “48 Hrs.” almost 40 years ago. To wit: He-man LA police detective Vic (Dave Bautista) is determined to bring down the drug cartel that killed his partner (Karen Gillan). Because he has just had Lasik surgery and has crashed his own car, Vic commandeers the Uber driven by wisecracking scaredy-cat Stu (Nanjiani) over one long, bullet-pocked day and night.
There’s a whiff of mordant, socially aware wit to this setup. With his dry delivery and seen-it-all gaze, Nanjiani is an effective stand-in for all the Americans barely getting by in the gig economy. Stu has a thankless job at a big-box sporting goods store, complete with an idiot boss (Jimmy Tatro) and co-worker crush (Betty Gilpin, of TV’s “GLOW”) who’s not worthy of him, and his financial solvency is hanging precariously on the rating his Uber passengers give him. There’s some bitter truth there that the movie quickly drowns out with car chases.
The awful-Uber-passenger montage is already becoming a cliché, in part because it’s pretty foolproof. The rest of “Stuber” is just cliché. The cop is so angrily dedicated to his job that he has alienated his artist-daughter (Natalie Morales) and has tried the patience of his police chief (Mira Sorvino in a thankless role). The villain is a sneering punk kickboxer played by Iko Uwais, star of the far superior “Raid” movies. “Stuber” drives in such well-worn ruts of action, comedy, and sentiment that one’s response is practically Pavlovian.
Sadly, former wrestling star Bautista seems like a dull chip off the Rock here. While he can be slyly funny in secondary roles like the dim, green Drax of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, Bautista may not have the charisma to hold down a lead, and his Vic is angry without being either funny or likable.
That leaves his costar doing the comedic heavy lifting. The laughs in “Stuber” rise almost exclusively from Nanjiani’s unflappable responses to the pinwheeling mayhem and from his charitable engagement with various loons and goons like a sensitive male stripper (Steve Howey) offering girlfriend advice in one of the few scenes that click.
Nanjiani deserves better, Bautista deserves better, and you deserve better. As for Uber, all I’ll say is that this is definitely not the movie to go to if you’re looking for a Lyft.
Directed by Michael Dowse. Written by Tripper Clancy. Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Betty Gilpin, Natalie Morales, Mira Sorvino. At Boston area theaters. 93 minutes. R (violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.